The COE and Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a close and dedicated friend of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for 30 years. For those of us fortunate enough to have known and worked with him over three decades, his impact both collectively and individually was revelatory and profound. He was a towering musical personality and a significant influence on all our lives.
Nikolaus connected with our most fundamental understanding of what it is to be a musician and expressed his extraordinary understanding of repertoire and performance practice with strength, boundless energy and a force of character that took us to musical worlds that we did not imagine existed and which have changed our lives.
His influence and emotional connection to us all will always remain strong. We are grateful that we were able to share a great musical journey with him and that we were in his words his “great adventure-troop”.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the COE
How it all started
The Beethoven recordings of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1991 under Nikolaus Harnoncourt represented then the culmination of what can now be seen as the beginning of a long-standing artistic collaboration and friendship.
Indeed, the first encounter ever of these two forces was a pure Beethoven project – something which, in retrospect, seems so obvious and natural.
The first rehearsals in October 1986 took place in a musty recording studio in the bowels of the Wiener Konzerthaus. This musical “blind date” was arranged by an adventurous (visionary?) impresario and subtly nudged along by a handful of COE members who had contact with Nikolaus Harnoncourt through other ensembles.
At the time no one could have foreseen the outcome of this venture. Beethoven’s Sixth and Eighth Symphonies, both pieces the COE had performed extensively, were the first to be rehearsed and the impressions of those earliest rehearsals remain strongly implanted in our minds.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s strong musical-historical perspective, combined with his extraordinary imagination and his ability to effectively communicate and synthesise them both, quite naturally matched the COE’s desire for “answers” and its ability to transfer – usually very quickly – complex concepts into the orchestral context. We quickly and readily grasped the ides and techniques of a rhetorical approach to music-making. The similarities and differences of modern orchestral instrumentarium and that of our 18th- and 19th-century counterparts were also consciously and critically reconsidered in regards to developing a playing style (our use of historically-oriented brass and timpani being the most obvious aspect of this). The results were often instantaneous. The “Pastoral” Symphony with its clear programme was perhaps the most eye-opening example. The Scene at the Brook or the Thunderstorm for example, were alive with flow and power of “nature” as we had collectively never experienced it in this music before. A “journey” through the antique church modes over cantus firmus style motives in the last movement of the Eighth Symphony – a piece we thought we knew well – had more than a few of us thinking “… is he making this up?” He was not.
The monumental Fifth Symphony ended our first set of concerts. Playing this piece for the first time, the Orchestra was possessed by the music and the new musical language it was learning. So possessed was it, in fact, that still today many cannot remember how the concert actually was. One certain memory is that, after the final chord there was only silence followed by a loud groan from a member of the audience and then a spattering of applause which slowly grew.
These first concerts led to an invitation from Harnoncourt and the Styriarte Festival in Graz to continue the experiment. The Graz periods which followed were decisive in the development and maturing of this musical collaboration. Weeks and weeks of Haydn, Schubert, Mozart and, of course, Beethoven (and later Schumann , Wagner, Offenbach, Bartok, Gershwin…!!), combined with the built-in Austrian culture of the Graz residency (so important to this music as we have learned!) enabled us to develop a unique musical vantage point and style which is still intact and influential today.
The rapport and working style of Harnoncourt and the COE is a combination of intensive concentration and humour. Harnoncourt’s colourful and creative brand of descriptive English has become second nature to us: “chicken skin”, “tongues like broken glass” (direction to the wind players to change their embouchure), “vats” (or showers!) of Cumberland sauce” and other terms have become standard terminology. We too have learned the essential or “untranslatable” German with words like “Fesch”, “Weich”, “Schwung”, “ keine Verstopfung” (no “constipation”, i.e. do not stop, let the music flow) and, of course “please, please, please, bitte nicht nachdrücken!” (no tenuto) belonging now to our new musical vocabulary.
The concept that “beauty is on the edge of safety (or catastrophe)” has been proposed to us by Harnoncourt since the very beginning with regard to taking technical risks for the sake of musical expression. More than a revelation for us, this idea is a confirmation of a basic musical credo which the COE and Harnoncourt always had in common. Ultimately, every player in the Orchestra must decide individually how much the risk he or she is willing to take for the collective effort. Harnoncourt’s trust and respect for these decisions, combined with his encouragement, inexhaustible energy , fantasy and joy of music making, allowed this very special collaboration to develop and grow, keeping the music we play insightful, fresh and ever-changing.
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt taught me the most about phrasing, music history and music in general! I grew up listening to his recordings, especially the ones with the COE. For me, they are still “the reference”.
I admired his revolutionary mind, his desire to make sense of the music – as opposed to “fast music learning/making” that today’s society and its frantic pace imposes onto us – his eternal curiosity about learning more repertoire, the magical energy he communicates when making music.
I wish every musician could have had the chance to work with him. I’m convinced there was a “before and after Nikolaus Harnoncourt”-effect for everybody who was able to make music with him.
Clara Andrada de la Calle, Principal Flute
I remember playing in the very first concert which Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted with COE in Vienna in 1986. I was blown away by his passion and his descriptive interpretation of the music. I had never experienced anything like him before.
He inspired us all to go to the limits of possibility in every musical way. He became the greatest influence on my musical life and I can never thank him enough for the amazing new world which he opened up for me. We made many recordings with him and I cherish every one, but my favourite has to be the Dvorak Slavonic Dances when he used say: “You must dig out your Czech grandmothers”.
Fiona Brett, Violin
Performances and recordings
Concert – Cité de la musique, Paris, 12 November 1996 (excerpt)
Concert – Cité de la musique, Paris, 24 April 1998 (excerpt)
Concert – Cité de la musique, Paris, 2 December 1999 (excerpt)
Styriarte 2010 – Rehearsing Ma Vlast, Smetana
Styriarte 2011 – Die Verkaufte Braut, Smetana